Take a quick look out the window. Is it raining?
I thought so.
Nothing snaps our attention to all those dire predictions about a long-term drought in the West quite like a winter without snow, followed by an early spring without rain. Well, there was that nice little snowstorm on Christmas. It’s as if the heavens listened to Utahns who are fond of saying, “I hate
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snow, except at Christmas,” or, “I’d like it if the snow stayed in the mountains and it just rained down here,” and took them seriously.
Except, of course, it really didn’t snow much in the mountains or rain much down here. When the state’s water managers began meeting this week in St. George to talk about conditions, the snowpack statewide was at about 65 percent of what it ought to be, and reservoirs were at about 63 percent.
Which means that, unless things change in a hurry, we’re going to have to take some drastic action.
If so, may I suggest the folks in charge look at market-driven strategies for water conservation?
I know everyone ignored me when I suggested this for highway funding. It would be better for the state’s transportation needs if it reduced gas taxes and imposed variable tolls on highways, I said, more than once.
I didn’t just suggest it. I referred to reputable studies that found it would be fairer and better for the environment than the current system. And, to be fair, you didn’t just ignore me. I read all the emails.
But the Legislature stuck with a gas tax hike anyway, despite knowing it won’t collect enough money for highway needs as cars become more fuel-efficient and people keep buying hybrids. Good luck with that.
But when it comes to water, if we’re not careful we run the risk of becoming like California, where some local governments have decided to sic people on each other. It’s called drought shaming. All you have to do is read the first sentence of an Orange County Register story last August to see how that’s going.
“The water ninjas are prowling the streets,” the story begins. “Mocking. Undercover. Often anonymous. They are watching you, snapping pictures of your wastefulness with their cellphones …”
Then they post this on Twitter, Facebook or some other public place, along with something clever like, “Congratulations for watering the pavement,” as the Register reported.
The irony is, California water districts don’t look at Twitter. They want people to report neighbors to them. But even that is an awful idea that could, as an L.A. Times opinion piece by Kerry Cavanaugh said, lead to “neighborhood feuds.”
She also noted how unfair this practice is. Some people could water the asphalt all day and never hear a complaint, while others with meddlesome neighbors could get a citation every time they spilled a drop from a water bottle.
Last year, in the face of a drought, the state of Utah decided all users who access the Virgin River with water rights obtained after 1900 would have to stop irrigating.
That was an arbitrary decision. Supply and demand is more effective.
But before Utah gets to market-driven water conservation, it has to change how water districts are funded. Right now, a lot of them receive a good deal of money from property taxes. I’m not the first to suggest that this should go the way of the Water Wiggle. The first step is to make sure users pay the true cost of water, which is a lot more than what people currently pay.
The next step is to revamp what already is happening in many areas — make the rates rise along with the amount of water customers use. Try this — charge people less for drinking and showering than for watering their lawns, then give people smartphone apps that alert them when they’re nearing a cutoff for higher rates.
The West’s water challenges go beyond the need for conservation. A lot of dams need to be upgraded and protected against earthquakes, for instance.
But if we want to make sure everyone has something to drink before storm clouds come again, make conservation something people can’t afford not to do.